My Top 10 Albums of 2016


*taps the mic*

This thing still work?

Hi! Yeah, I exist. It’s been a busy year.

For one thing, the lovely Ms. Phoebe Lucille was born on June 29th. 🙂

A two year old and a six month old do not make for many leisurely afternoons exploring new music, and besides that, my competing addictions to Forum Mafia and Overwatch have consumed virtually all of what little free time I have. Suffice to say, I’m not exactly well informed on music in 2016. In fact, I can’t name 10 metal albums that came out last year off the top of my head, so my traditional top metal list just isn’t going to happen.

But I’ve been posting some sort of year-end music list every year since 2002, and I’ll be damned if I let ignorance stop me. So here goes nothing:

10. Krallice – Prelapsarian

Prelapsarian was released on December 21st. I didn’t find out about its existence until quite recently, and like every Krallice albums, it’s going to take a good 30 listens to fully appreciate. But after a few early spins I can confidently say that it’s good, and because it’s Krallice, that probably means I’ll be kicking myself half a year from now for not giving it my #1 slot. My initial take-away is that the band has continued to pursue the more mathy/avant-garde approach they took on Ygg Huur in place of the progressive opuses of their first four albums, and while that might not make for the same degree of eternal replay value, they’re still the best in the business at what they do. I could argue that I liked the Hyperion EP released earlier this year more, but that’s hardly fair given the amount of time I’ve had to listen to Prelapsarian. I’m going to err on the side of reason here and say this album will be firmly cemented in my top 10 of 2016 a month from now.

9. Martröð – Transmutation of Wounds

Is it another cop out to include a 16 minute EP in my year end list? Maybe. Whatever the play time limits, Transmutation of Wounds takes me on a pretty diverse and chaotic ride. In a lot of ways it felt like a more complete work to me than many full length black metal albums I heard this year, because it’s always going somewhere. The destinations aren’t particularly inviting, but they’re consistently fascinating. A solid debut from a band that could really kill it if they put together a full length album.

8. Skáphe – Skáphe²

This one is a brilliantly discordant and meandering take on black metal. It borders on unlistenable for all the right reasons, and leaves me feeling a little sick to my stomach every time I give it a spin. I suppose that doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it’s an artistic accomplishment that really very few bands out there can pull off. I mutually adore and abhor it. On an amusing note, I just realized as I was writing this that the line-up includes members of Misþyrming and Martröð. Misþyrming’s Söngvar elds og óreiðu would have easily made my 2015 list if I hadn’t only discovered it this past January, and I placed Martröð one slot up, so at least my tastes are consistent. <_<

7. Sumac – What One Becomes

I need to get off my ass and buy a physical copy of this album. Post-metal god Aaron Turner finally found a worthy follow-up to Isis when he joined forces in 2015 with Nick Yacyshyn and Brian Cook to create The Deal, a sludgy masterpiece that might be what Isis would have sounded like had they tied a brick to every guitar string. The Deal has been my go-to album for car rides for quite a while now, and it’s hard for me to compare its quality to What One Becomes because I’ve only ever listened to the latter at home. But I’ve heard it enough to know it’s excellent, and it’s only going to keep on growing on me in years to come.

6. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

I don’t suppose this needs much explanation. Half a year ago, I might have considered it for my top choice of the year. Sitting here right now, I can’t honest remember any of the songs besides “Burn the Witch” and the absolutely beautiful revision of “True Love Waits” without putting the album on to remind myself. That’s been the simple difference for me between post-Hail to the Thief Radiohead and all that came before. I love it when I’m experiencing it; I can’t really remember it a few weeks removed. But it’s more a testimony to Thom and company’s longevity that the music they released in 2016 still earns an easy placement in my top 10 of the year.

5. Run the Jewels – 3

This is where my list is going to start getting a little unconventional to people who’ve known me for a long time. I was really into Anticon back in the early 2000s (I gave Buck 65’s Secret House Against the World my #1 slot in 2005), but by and large hip hop has remained one of those genres I massively respected but never really got around to expansively engaging. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015 hit me hard enough to affect a more lasting change in my listening habits. I listened to more hip hop than metal in 2016. So there’s the preface.

When I say I don’t know hip hop though, I mean it. El-P and Killer Mike were nothing to me but names I’d heard people mention a million times before I picked up this album. I can’t compare this to their past albums. I can’t speak from experience. I can’t even talk about its appeal over time, because this album just dropped on Christmas Eve. But it hit me for all the reasons I was digging Aesop Rock this time 15 years ago, and in a year when hip hop was my go-to genre it was the perfect album to close things out.

4. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

That was the easy part. Now it gets hard. The rest of these could go in any order. They’re so mutually different that I don’t really know where to begin in ranking them. So I’m going to do the stupid thing and put the album I’m most likely to love longest at the bottom of the pile.

Is this the most intelligent album of 2016? Probably. I don’t have to be well versed in a genre to recognize a piece of art when I see it. Atrocity Exhibition shows extreme attention to lyrical and musical detail in crafting its grim cautionary descent into drug abuse and street violence. Brown pulled together a collection of sounds that projected his vision in astoundingly visual ways. No one should ever realistically be able to rap to this, but he managed to lay his eccentric and expressive voice over top of it anyway. It’s one of those packages that takes extreme care to ensure that it’s barely holding itself together at any given moment. If I was strictly picking the “best” album of 2016, Brown would be my boy, but what good is a year end list if I can’t kick myself for how stupid my ordering was afterwards?

3. Deathspell Omega – The Synarchy of Molten Bones

Besides, metal has always hit closest to home for me. It’s the sound I find easiest to embrace, whatever its abrasiveness, and once again France has served as the source of its finest cuts. For better than a decade, friends whose tastes I trust have been praising Deathspell Omega, but I could never quite catch the hype. That changed this year. Far and away my favorite metal album of 2016, The Synarchy of Molten Bones is a complex and captivating black metal masterpiece that’s really perfectly mixed to bring out the robustness of their sound in a full and fleshy way. The song progression is delightfully abstract without ever teetering into the abyss of wankery. A lot of its success stands on their ability to remain relentlessly aggressive no matter how far they delve into experimentation. Too obscure for me to ever fully wrap my head around, I’ve put it on more than 50 times expecting the sort of bore that excessively abstract metal tends to convey on me, and every time I’m just immediately swept away, not fully cognizant of what my ears are hearing but thoroughly in love. These guys crafted an exceptional album on their own, but they owe their studio staff a lot of respect for delicious production too.

2. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

From here I’ve got to vote with my heart, and that begins with the 34 minute heartbreak that is 22, A Million. This album reminds me more of Lost in Translation than of any particular album. It’s packed with disjointed vignettes that don’t serve an apparent purpose towards progressing the album. They often start or end abruptly. It almost comes off as a compilation of half-finished works that got mashed together in an abbreviated 34 minute package with all the meat left behind, but I think it works well that way. Fleeting moments of digital indie folk that always manage to feel simultaneously depressed and comforting–the end result is something beautiful. I put my kids to sleep with it at night.

1. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

I’ve been trying my hardest to overplay this album for ten months now, but it just won’t grow old. I don’t know if past artists have incorporated gospel into hip hop to this extent or not, but if they’re half as effective at it, lead the way. I don’t have to share Chance’s religious beliefs to find this album entirely uplifting from start to finish. It beams positivity from end to end without any of the pop sunshine and flowers that turn me off to the vast majority of “happy” music. Chance is at his best when he’s passionately and arrogantly busting out religious lines (and he kills it just as hard on Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam”, whatever I think of the rest of that album). That’s the focus for the grand bulk of this work. It’s not perfect by a long shot. Where he diverts to more worldly themes, he’s often shallow and cliche. “All Night” for instance is really fun to jam along to but leaves me feeling more than modestly cheated on the lyrical front.

But I don’t really care. I fell in love with the spirituality of this album right from the get-go, and close to a year later it still brightens me up every time I put it on. It won’t go down among my top albums of all time, but it earned its place as my favorite of 2016.

Previous years on Shattered Lens:

2011 / 2012 / 2013 / 2014 / 2015

Previous Entries In The Best of 2016:

  1. TFG’s 2016 Comics Year In Review : Top Tens, Worsts, And Everything In Between
  2. Anime of the Year: 2016
  3. 25 Best, Worst, and Gems I Saw In 2016
  4. 2016 in Review: The Best of SyFy
  5. 2016 in Review: The Best of Lifetime
  6. 2016 in Review: Lisa Picks the 16 Worst Films of 2016!
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A special Christmas Eve sing-along with your friend, necromoonyeti!


Jingle bells!
Jingle bells!
Jingle all the way!
Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh-Oh!
Jingle bells!
Jingle bells!
Jingle all the way!
Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh!

Dashing through the snow!
In a one-horse open sleigh!
O’er the fields we go!
Laughing all the way!
Bells on bobtail ring!
Making spirits bright!
What fun it is to ride and sing a Slayer song tonight!
Oh—Auschwitz!
The meaning of pain!
The way that I want you to die!
Slow death!
Immense decay!
Showers that cleanse you of your life!

Am I doing it right?

Merry Christmas Shattered Lens!

BlizzCon 2015: World of Warcraft: Legion


BlizzCon is always more exciting, for me at least, on odd numbered years, and the reason is obvious enough: it is when Blizzard have historically announced the next expansion in the World of Warcraft franchise. Not so in 2015. With a great deal of “huh?” and “did something important happen a few weeks ago?”, Warcraft gamers have been slowly coming to learn of Legion, which was announced at a convention in Germany back in August.

A bit anti-climatic to say the least, the announcement might have come early to fit the company’s time table; unlike previous expansions, Legion will be released in the middle of the year instead of at the end. I thought that Blizzard would at least, well, pretend like Legion was a secret during the opening ceremonies–they did as much years ago when they “revealed” Starcraft II after announcing it previously in Korea. So I decided to remain blissfully ignorant of World of Warcraft: Legion and wait for the meat and potatoes showcase. It didn’t quite pan out as I expected. This is the trailer they presented:

I enjoyed it. Watching Sylvanas duke it out with the demon got me fairly excited. But if this was all you had to go on, you would have approximately zero idea what Legion was about save exactly what its name implies: The Burning Legion. In that sense, the opening ceremony to BlizzCon 2015 was rather disappointing. I was expecting a broad four minute cinematic showcase of the new world that Legion would open up. Instead I got a narrow four minute cinematic showcase of Varian and Sylvanas fighting demons. Meh. Cool video; not what I was hoping for though.

But thankfully there was a World and Content Overview. (And a Q&A panel later tonight.) So here is the rundown on everything Blizzard revealed about Legion:

PLOT

Where Warlords of Draenor left off, Gul’dan had opened a portal for the Burning Legion to invade alternate-reality Draenor and the horde and alliance had stopped it, but Gul’dan escaped. In Legion, he arrives in main-timeline Azeroth and heads to the Broken Isles–a remnant of ancient Suramar which holds the tomb of Sargeras–under orders from Kil’jaeden. (Sargeras is basically the highest-tier bad guy in WoW lore–a titan who turned evil and commanded the Burning Legion. Basically, Kil’jaeden’s boss.) A portal is opened, the invasion begins, and here we are. Oh, and Illidan Stormrage is back, because why not?

It’s pretty straight-forward stuff, and for as cataclysmic as a Burning Legion invasion might be, this one is apparently isolated to the new continent. (Don’t expect anything like the terrain-changing rampage that Deathwing went on at the launch of Cataclysm.)

Illidan’s role is going to pick up from Black Temple. Blizzard are retconning the invasion of the Black Temple in Burning Crusade to say that Illidan opened a portal to a demon prison world (Mardum) and sent the future-Demon Hunter class elves on through. Inside, they infuse themselves with fel energy in a way that does not bend their will towards the Legion. (In practice it’s something akin to Death Knights–a horde/alliance aligned variant of a traditionally evil class–and they’ll begin at level 98.) The Demon Hunters return to the Black Temple just in time to be defeated by the horde/alliance and imprisoned by Maiev. Their plot line resumes in the present, where they break out of the Vault of the Wardens and choose their factions.

That was all Blizzard had to say about the main plot overview. But when they got into discussing different zones, things got interesting. Apparently, Legion is going to double up as the Emerald Dream expansion. (I’m kind of torn on that because I always hoped it would be its own independent expac.) Basically, the Emerald Dream is an alternate dimension containing the blueprints of Azeroth as it was first formed. It’s where druids derive their power, and Ysera and the green dragonflight existed to protect it. For about as long as WoW has existed, it’s been plagued by a mysterious corruption, and in Legion we finally get to engage that head on.

A third plot device that’s coming into play here is the Vrykul. Apparently a large contingent of their people came to the Lost Isles prior to the events of Wrath of the Lich King, and their lore will be explored and fleshed out in the zone known as Stormheim. From the sounds of things, Blizzard intend to push the story pretty far via quests and dungeons, possibly diminishing expansion-tier lore into a single zone. I started worrying about this at first. I began to wonder if this was going to be a slap-together “various plotlines we didn’t think we could base a whole expansion on” expansion. But when they started showing the artwork for it all, I got over myself pretty quickly. They didn’t slap a random winter zone into the middle of the continent or anything cheesy like that. The art looked really tasteful and appropriate for this expansion’s overall flavor without breaking from Vrykul standards. Hey, if the vikings could settle south in Europe they can do it in Azeroth too. (I guess we don’t technically know where in Azeroth the Lost Isles will be yet.)

LEVELING EXPERIENCE

Legion will begin with a 40-player scenario sequence (I cringed at the thought of how queues for this might work months after the launch when most players have already done it) where the alliance and horde invade the Broken Isles and establish their footholds. Blizzard showed a video of it. It looked, well, pretty damn awesome.

From there, I’m a little bit suspect of the way things will go down. There are four main questing zones surrounding the max level destination of Suramar: Azsuna, Val’sharah, Highmountain, and Stormheim:

The problem is, you don’t explore them in a set order. Blizzard got it in their heads to use the scaling technology we saw a lot of in Warlords and make all mobs scale as you level, so you can choose which order you tackle the zones in. It sounds like an absolutely terrible idea to me. First of all, so much for going back and finishing the story lines in lower level zones once you’re strong enough to speed through filler “kill 15 of x” quests. They’re now guaranteed to be a tedious waste of time no matter what your level is. Yay!

And this is going to be an absolute nightmare for pvp servers. Seriously. At least before, players 10 levels above you had to go out of their way to find you and pick a fight instead of taking on players their own size. Now a level 100 and a level 109 will routinely find themselves doing the same leveling quest. It doesn’t stop at that, either. It was later mentioned that, thanks to scaling, areas can function as both leveling zones and end-game questing areas. Uh, thanks Blizzard. There’s nothing this dwarf loves more than competing to complete a quest at level 100 against three full-conquest geared horde at level 110.

END-GAME QUESTING

Like it or not, daily quests are coming back with a vengeance. I absolutely loved command table missions in Warlords of Draenor, because you were pretty free to do whatever you wanted within the mission area and gain credit towards the same objective. Legion‘s variation didn’t sound particularly bad though. Instead of picking up dailies from a central hub, there will be daily quest regions with objectives listed on your map–presumably dozens of them–and you can pick from a huge variety throughout the continent to do whatever you’re in the mood for on a given day. Blizzard described their intention as to “overwhelm you with options”. And I like that. Part of what made Warlords of Draenor the most fun thing Blizzard has created in a long time was this sense that you never had to do the same content twice or run out of activities. I get the impression that in Legion they are taking that idea and pushing it even further.

The more significant rewards of dailies won’t be “daily” in the traditional sense, either. They will be something more like “complete six of the dozens of daily quests in a given zone this week.” So you should never feel obligated to actually play every day in order to keep up with the content. As someone who likes to be geared for raiding early in an expansion but can’t be on every day, I really like that.

RAIDS AND DUNGEONS

Blizzard announced two raids for Legion. The first is The Emerald Nightmare, which I’m really looking forward to because the Emerald Dream is an obscure bit of WoW lore that’s intrigued me for years. We’re finally getting to see it out. The Emerald Nightmare will contain 7 bosses and open a few weeks after launch, similar to Highmaul.

Inside you’ll fight, among other things, Xavius, corrupted members of the green dragonflight, and–I thought this was pretty awesome–the one and only Cenarius, fully corrupted by the Nightmare’s blight.

I’m pretty stoked. This is the raid I’ve been waiting for for a long, long time (still wish it was a full expansion), and I don’t think Blizzard are going to disappoint. The brief video they showed of the place looked amazing.

The second raid is going to be Suramar Palace. This one will be central to the expansion’s main plot, with Gul’dan as the final boss. It contains 10 bosses, and its design is pretty unique from the sounds of it. Set in the highest palace of the Nightborn Elves’ capital, it’s going to be a bright and elaborate palace, not a dark grimy catacomb. (At least, as they described it. No preview was shown.)

Additionally, Blizzard is pushing to make dungeons central to Legion–or so they say–but I’m not sure that it’s going to have a real impact. I think most of us were quite relieved to discover that dungeons were one and done in Warlords of Draenor. It made them unique and enjoyable rather than mindnumbingly repetitious grinds. Blizzard are putting a lot of effort into redesigning dungeon scaling and reward systems for challenge mode, but it frankly sounded like an excessively complicated waste of time that no one is going to bother playing anyway. (Honestly, how many people do you know who do challenge modes? Out of a maxed out realid list of 100 people I can think of approximately zero.) But if that’s your gig, it sounds like there will be additional tiers of difficulty which incorporate additional mechanics.

The only thing that worried me is I got the impression dungeons might scale up to your current gear even if you don’t want them to. I’m really hoping this isn’t the case–especially with scaling coming into play in the world zones as well. It rather defeats the purpose of seeking better gear if it never makes you any stronger…

ODDS AND ENDS

There is something that might be a new major city but probably isn’t: Suramar. Elves created a barrier to protect the ancient capital of Suramar during The Sundering 10,000 years ago, and they have been living behind it ever since, unaware that the War of the Ancients was ever won. The city was described as “one of the most ambitious projects that this team has ever done”. Blizzard explained that the leader of the city turned over to the Burning Legion, and one speaker let it slip–seemingly by accident–that Dalaran will be moving to the Lost Isles from Northrend, so I doubt there will be a traditional hub here. “The Grand Palace of Suramar” is a raid, and the city features two dungeons. Yet Blizzard mention “aiding your allies in Suramar”. I’m not sure what to make of that, and wonder if the city will be divided into a “safe-zone” hub and the occupied districts. Is Suramar City a city or just a questing zone like Shattrath in Warlords of Draenor, but with a raid and dungeons stuck in the middle? Hard to say.

One thing Blizzard definitely confirmed is that we will be able to see it. Visibility distance will be increased to three times its current level. That might honestly be the most exciting announcement about the whole expac for me, and a pretty cool reason to go re-explore the world.

There will be moose, games where you roll around in a barrel, and male banshees (manshees). All of these points received special attention because 😕 why shouldn’t they?

Blizzard made no mention of whether or not there would be level 110 flying. I think no flying had a tremendously positive impact on Warlords of Draenor. It felt like the largest expansion in the game by far–a place you could get lost in like nothing since Vanilla WoW. But the decision saw its fair share of opposition, so it’s hard to say whether they’ll repeat the process in Lost Isles.

World of Warcraft: Legion is due out in mid-2016. It looks pretty good, and has manshees.

October Music Series: Dissection – Where Dead Angels Lie


My music series this year fell victim to a game of forum mafia that’s eaten up every ounce of my free time (and a little more I couldn’t really afford to lose <_<) but I wanted to share one last song here before we lay the Halloween season to rest. Dissection are one of the more notorious black metal bands of the 90s, embroiled in murder and occult suicide and all sorts of trouble. Generally, bands in that ballpark produced the more deranged, off-kilter songs that granted 90s black metal such a strong air of the sincerely sinister. But Dissection was a bit different. For all of Jon Nödtveidt's faults, he was a really brilliant songwriter in a surprisingly traditional sense. The band's most famous song–"Where Dead Angels Lie", off Storm of the Light’s Bane (1995)–is a masterful six minute progression of beautiful melodies that would not be out of place on an early In Flames album. (Is it a mere coincidence that the band’s home town of Strömstad is not terribly far north of the melodic death metal capital of the world: Gothenburg, Sweden?) It is sinister in a theatrical sort of way, quite different from the traditional roots of the genre and quite better than the few ‘mainstream’ bm bands, who are generally more willing to take this approach.

Hope you enjoy, and Happy Halloween!

October Music Series: Jason Hayes – Darkmoon Faire Merry-Go-Round


One of the first novelties to really captivate me in World of Warcraft was holiday events. WoW was the first game I ever played that really felt like a full-blown world and not just a collection of zones. (At least, it did back before Blizzard effectively shrunk everything with portals and fast travel.) Holidays added a further immersive element–a sense that this world actually experienced the passage of time. While that aspect was left by the wayside as the game expanded, it had a powerful effect on me back in 2005. Playing the game for me then didn’t mean statistics-grinding–being the first on my server to down a boss or accomplish an ‘achievement’–it just meant checking out of real life for a few hours and immersing myself in this fantasy environment. You could start a new character on Halloween, set off on the long hike to a major city, and there you’d find the whole place decked out in pumpkins and ghouls with themed mini-games and the like. Come back at Christmas, and the world will have aged again. I loved it.

The Darkmoon Faire is an event unique to Azeroth. Originally a traveling carnival that you might happen upon by chance, it eventually set up permanent shop with easy access to the major cities, but the settlement maintained its air of mystery. In practice, the Darkmoon Faire Merry-Go-Round is a necessary stop for anyone interested in speed-leveling a new character due to the beneficial enchantment that visitors receive, but its music leaves you wondering if you didn’t just lose your soul in exchange…

This Jason Hayes composition was not actually introduced to the game until late 2012, in the Landfall patch for Mists of Pandaria, but it could easily find a home in the game’s annual Halloween event.

October Music Series: Векша – Царство снега


The short-lived, Yaroslavl-based band Векша (Veksha) offer a look at that strange world of ultra-nationalistic, rabidly pagan Slavic metal that began to emerge shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. I love the awkward juxtaposition (by 1998 standards) of black metal and this anonymous woman’s clean, almost childish singing in the environment of absolutely rock-bottom recording quality. The aesthetic consequence is spooky–a sort of half-formed ghost of a demo tape that dares you to shut off your speakers and see if it continues to play.

But the appeal that keeps me listening to На пороге ночи (Na Poroge Nochi) might not have been the band’s intent. Believe it or not they actually had a website, on which they greet all Aryan brothers with pastel flowers and rotating heart gifs.

umm…

But creepy by accident is always more effective than creepy by intent, right? The bizarrely pervasive fixation on race throughout a lot of early Slavic pagan metal bands probably has an interesting historical explanation that is well beyond the scope of my knowledge, and the explicitly sinister intent of a few prominent bad apples in that bunch might cast the rest a little out of context, but at any rate it’s another off-kilter factor in rendering Veksha’s lone release just a wee bit disturbing for reasons the band probably never intended. They’ve definitely earned a spot in my Halloween playlist.

True Slavonic Romantic Pagan Metal ?